Investigating Terrorism

John Pearse, Ph.D
Scientific Advisor to Paul Ekman Group

January 20, 2015

Unfortunately terrorism is all around us as recent global events continue to demonstrate.  Across America, throughout Europe and around the world people took to the streets to peacefully protest against the terrorist atrocities that had left 17 dead in Paris, France last week. The themes emerging from this massive world-wide show of public support for the freedom of expression and in the wider sense liberty itself are two-fold: it is about terrorism, organized terrorism and not religion and secondly that if we are to defeat it then we must do so together. In my new book – Investigating Terrorism – I also reinforce these themes by bringing together an array of multi-disciplinary experts and seek to dispel a number of the many myths that exist especially in relation to suicide attacks.

I have assembled leading counter terrorism experts from the world of politics – who are responsible for drafting new terrorist legislation; law enforcement officers who are tasked with exercising such powers; lawyers, both defense and prosecution who are charged with examining and contesting the facts of each case and psychologist who help us to understand the thought processes and personality characteristics behind such terrorist behaviour. One of the most common myths about suicide attacks is that it is an Islamic phenomenon but any historian will tell you that this simply is not the case. Indeed, there is a very strong argument to suggest that the story of Samson, in the Old Testament of the Bible, may well be the first recorded account of such an act.

You will remember that Samson had been captured by the Philistines and he asked the young lad that was leading him to position him between the pillars that supported the main hall where everybody was congregated and the Bible records that he said “Let me die with the Philistines.” And using all his strength he quite literally brought the house down and killed all the men, women and children present – about three thousand (see Judges 16: 26-30 and Chapter 9 of my book). In terms of the fatalities – how does this compare with the 9/11 atrocities? Interestingly, the Bible does not condemn this action rather it portrays it as an act of redemption and vengeance. More recently, in World War II readers may be familiar with actions of the Japanese pilots who undertook ‘Kamikaze’ (suicide) missions against the American fleet in the Pacific.  What is perhaps less well known is that the very first ‘Kamikaze’ act was undertaken by an American pilot – Captain Richard Fleming at the Battle of Midway in 1942 whose actions greatly impressed the Japanese senior command.

So it is very important to remain detached and to stay well informed when discussing suicide acts and the many myths that pervade this subject – it is not a question of religion – it is most definitely a very effective and successful tactic undertaken by organizations – terrorist organizations. In my book I dedicate a chapter to analyzing the first and to date, the only ‘ticking bomb’ interview undertaken with a failed suicide bomber in Western Europe. After four bombs had been placed around London the bombers made their escape but the first one captured knew where the bomb making material was to be found and the location of the other bombers – would he reveal these details? In this unique environment normal interviewing practices can be suspended on the grounds of public safety – the resultant exchange between the British detectives and the Somali born detainee was to become the subject of many legal arguments – exhausting the entire appeal process in the UK and reaching the highest court in Europe – a very different process from the American experience (see chapters 1-5 in my book).

Some time ago I was very fortunate that as a psychologist and senior detective in the Counter Terrorism Command at New Scotland Yard I was invited to research and interview failed suicide bombers in the Middle East. One striking fact that I immediately recognized was to learn that a crucial factor in the success of any suicide attack was the role of the young boy or girl whose task was to lead the bomber to the desired location – I immediately thought of Samson and how so little had changed in that part of the world from Biblical times!

Another important element in preventing suicide attacks was the need to employ alert and watchful private security guards at busy public locations as they had met with considerable success in preventing attacks and raising the alarm. According to the guards themselves they only had to look at the faces of people to know when something was wrong. Whilst many of the guards were unable to accurately identify or articulate the actual emotion displayed the Paul Ekman Group has developed a world renowned suite of on-line tools that will greatly improve your ability to recognise and discern even the most fleeting of emotional expressions click here.

-John Pearse

Investigating Terrorism: Current Political, Legal and Psychological Issues – published by Wiley Blackwell is available at

‘How can we be more effective in bringing terrorists to justice in ways that uphold our legal traditions? This book provides crucial clues drawn from highly experienced prosecution and defence lawyers, detectives, security experts and forensic psychologists. I highly recommend it for all who want to understand and respond to the serious threat from jihadist terrorism over the years to come.’
-Professor Sir David Omand, former UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and Director GCHQ

‘Edited and written by experts in their fields and with a plethora of experience, the authors know what they are talking about. This book is a must for those who need to know, those who are interested to know, and those who think they know it all already.’
-Susan Young, Professor of Forensic Clinical Psychology, Broadmoor Hospital, West London Mental Health Trust



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